Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Isaurians – Rome’s homegrown barbarians

At the time Rome’s western empire ‘fell’ in AD476, the emperor in the east was a barbarian. The coins call him Zeno, a Greek name; however his real name was Tarasicodissa Rousoumbladadiotes and he was an Isaurian (reigned 474-91). Although notionally Roman citizens, the Isaurians were fiercely independent and antagonistic to Rome. So why were several emperors drawn from them, a people you might call homegrown barbarians?

The Divine Emperor Zeno

Isauria seems to have been a land that nobody else wanted. It’s located in what is now southern Turkey, next to Cicilia on the coast and Pamphylia to its west. To the north was Lycaonia and to its east was Commagene. These lands changed hands amongst Persians, Medes, Greeks and Romans, later Armenians and Turks. The Tarza (Tarsus) Mountains were their core territory, although at times they extended towards the coast and even onto Cyprus. As everyone knows, St Paul was born Saul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jewish tentmaker in the capital of the Province of Cicilia.

Dangerous Barbarians
Vainly the Romans planted cities in Isauria, or renamed them after famous Romans (Germanopolis, Claudiopolis, and even Zenopolis, the emperor’s birthplace, probably called Rusumblada until then). A fair comparison might be the renaming of places in Ireland by English and Scottish overlords.

The threat from the Isaurians can be seen in the myth of Typhon, a monster killed by Zeus. He seems to have been a local god of fire and earthquakes, portrayed by the Greeks as the father of Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx and every other monster they could think of. Typhon is linked from Hesiod onwards as Cicilian, but the difference between Cicilia and Isauria seems to be political, not ethnic. But the Greeks and Romans, since at least the time of Hesiod, liked to portray the people of that area as not quite human.

A Necropolis in Isauria

Almost Useful Barbarians
Isauria overlaps too with the territory of Pamphylia, a land overrun early by Achaean Greeks c.1200BC, suggesting links with Troy. All the people of this area seem to have been Luwian speaking Hittites. The Isaurians are termed ‘Dorian’ by the Greeks, suggesting that they saw them as being very similar in attitudes to the Dorian Greeks, the ‘Sons of Hercules’, tough and violent upland dwellers, and indeed the Greeks claimed the Pamphylians were Dorians. What we seem to be seeing here is an attempt to impose a Greek identity onto Hittite/Luwian peoples. Lycaonia seems to be relate to the ancient Lukka people, and to names like Lycaeon of Troy, one of the sons of Priam, and to Lycaeon, king of Arcadia, son of Pelasgus in Greek myth and thus brother of Niobe and a dynast of the Pelasgians who at one point ruled Athens. Zeus was termed ‘Lykaios’ in the Arcadian festival of Lykaia.

This mythic muddle seems to point towards fusion and confusion of similar peoples with Greeks. A lot of the Greek myths draw on stories from Asia Minor.

How Roman is a Roman?
Lest anyone think that the emperor personified everything that was Roman, the rulers of the later empire often came from militarised districts. Diocletian was a Croat, Maximian a Serb, Constantius Chlorus was an Illyrian, while Galerius was a Thracian, in the military tradition of the emperor Maximinus Thrax. Most of the emperors succeeding Commodus were not Italians. But they were all Roman citizens, as was Zeno. To consider that certain powerbrokers in the later empire somehow couldn’t be emperor themselves and hid behind tame Roman emperors seems simply wrong, and Chris Wickham holds the same view in his recent book The Inheritance of Rome.

Most of the so-called Gothic commanders involved in the Sack of Rome in AD410 had been born after AD378 and the battle of Adrianople, so they were as Roman as anyone else. By the time Euric rebelled against the emperor Anthemius, a Greek, neither was more Roman than the other. Anthemius was put into office by Ricimer, his son-in-law, a Frank. We have no evidence of any Frankish or Gothic commander speaking anything but Latin.

Isaurians were politically distinct from the peoples around them, but not culturally so. Another comparison with a recent group would be with the Don Cossacks, whose name suggests a link with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan. Like the Cossacks, there may have been a difference of lifestyle, but the Isaurians are clearly linked to the other states which emerged after the end of the Hittite empire in Asia Minor. We might also compare them with the Basques, who in the western Pyrenees survived the Romans, Goths, Moors and Franks, or the Highlander groups who fought the English as fiercely as they fought the lowland Scots before them.

Just as poverty drew the Scots and Irish into the British forces, it seems to have drawn marginal people into the Roman army, among them the Isaurians.

The House of Theodosius
Zeno spent many years rising in Roman service in the east. It’s worth tracing the dynastics of the eastern empire in the fifth century. Theodosius II, despite having his name on a famous Roman law code, did nothing during his 42 years on the throne, just shy of the reign of Augustus, and his sister Pulcheria ran the empire the whole time until her death in 453. In 450, after the death of Theodosius, she married the Illyrian general Marcian to make him emperor, which in turn ennobled his daughter to marry Anthemius, later western emperor.

Emperor Theodosius II

Pulcheria, emperor in all but name

Marcian, emperor and husband of Pulcheria

The house of Valentinian and Theodosius ended with the death of Marcian in 457, when another powerful soldier, Leo Marcellus from Dacia, was given the eastern throne. His daughter Ariadne married Zeno; their son Leo II briefly inherited the imperial title in 474 for a matter of months with Zeno as co-emperor; on his son’s death late in 474, Zeno became emperor.

Emperor Leo I


Succession idealised father-to-son transmission, derived in part from biblical models, but in practice emperors married their daughters to rising generals. It was a throw of the dice which put Zeno on the throne at the moment the western succession collapsed. Zeno faced a claim to the throne by Basiliscus, the brother of Verina, Leo’s wife, who was proclaimed emperor in Constantinople on 9 January 475 and tried to reign for 19 months until he in turn was overthrown and Zeno restored in August 476. The beneficiaries of the rout of the Isaurians were Ostrogoths, led by cousins Theodoric Strabo (‘squinty’) and Theodoric ‘the Amal’. Inevitably men of Germanic background dominated the new imperial close protection squad called excubitores.

It matches the English Wars of the Roses for dynastic complexity. So it was only a few days after his restoration to the throne that Zeno received the returned imperial insignia from Odoacer in Ravenna which ended the succession of emperors in Italy.

The Empire Need Not Have Ended
Given the closeness of timing, we should assume that Odoacer intended to surrender the insignia to Basiliscus, not Zeno. Perhaps Odoacer never intended the line of emperors to end with Romulus Augustulus, but to have become western emperor himself and that in formally surrendering the insignia to Basiliscus, he would receive it back with an ennoblement to become emperor in his turn. Given the weeks it would take to get messages even by sea between Ravenna and Constantinople, Odoacer could not have known it would be Zeno and not Basiliscus who would receive it.

We can think beck for a moment to the death of the emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. On his death, his nephew Gratian was the only Augustus with authority to reign (Valentinian II was a small child). Although he eventually made Theodosius Augustus of the East, initially he only made him Magister Equitum, commander of the imperial army in the east and it was five months later when Gratian elevated him as Augustus on 19 January 379 (see Thomas Burns’ Barbarians within the Gates of Rome, p.43). It is highly likely that Theodosius, son-in-law of Valens, had to hand the imperial regalia of the east to Gratian, and received it back when he was made emperor nearly half a year later.

Moreover, Odoacer is considered by many, including the ‘Byzantine’ historian John Malalas, to have been the nephew of Basiliscus. If that is so, then it looks increasingly likely that, like Theodosius, Odoacer expected to be made emperor. Basiliscus made his own son junior Augustus, so that would not be a surprise. On deposing Zeno. Basiliscus encouraged the mob to murder all Isaurians in Constantinople. He extorted  heavy taxes from the empire and allowed Constantinople to suffer a significant fire, that destroyed the library of Julian, which had existed for 110 years. It is ironic that the years which saw the end of the western empire also destroyed a lot of ‘pagan’ literature in the east.

Usurping Emperor Basiliscus

 Basiliscus also got himself caught up in one of the less interesting Christian controversies, and flip-flopped alarmingly. His sister, Verina, seems to have been involved in an intrigue against him, planning to marry the magister officiorum Patricius and have him made emperor. Patricius was murdered and Basiliscus lived. His two terms as consul and his former high command of imperial forces west and east seem not to have honed his judgement.

His nephews Odoacer, Onoulphus (Hunwulf) and Armatus formed shifting alliances, illustrated by their polyethnic names; their father Edekon had been an officer for Attila the Hun, and had or took a Hunnic name, yet later joined the Roman army as did his sons. Ethnic identity seems to have been malleable to say the least. Basiliscus was therefore a Hun or Hunnic ally too – the three brothers were his side of the family. We may be beginning to see the start of the practice, seen in Frankish Gaul, where names are given in expectation of  career involvement in Church or army, either in childhood or as an adult. Nor should we be surprised by sibling rivalry, which since Romulus has shaped power relations in antiquity. Those of the sons of Clovis and those of Louis the Pious were just as toxic.

Basiliscus sent out Illus and Trocundus, two Isaurian brothers and imperial generals, among the few left in the capital after the emperor had massacred most of them. The two brothers may have been from a rival grouping. They went to kill Zeno, but were suborned by the Senate to restore Zeno instead, which they did.

The complexity of this situation is reflected in the consulship. In 476, the consuls were Basiliscus (the for the second time) and Armatus. There were no consuls picked at all in 477, and in 478 Illus alone and 479 Zeno alone. Between 478 and 500 there are many consuls appointed sine collega (without a colleague). Western consuls ended in 534 and eastern ones in 541. As emperors became kings, there was little need for consuls to confuse things and Justinian simply abolished the position. The Greek title of the Roman emperor basileus always meant king anyway.

So the return of Zeno saw the return of the Isaurians, among whom he had sat out his interregnum, excluding his brother Longinus, who was held a hostage for ten years by Illus.

The best modern history of this I know is by Peter Heather, best known as the expert on the Goths. His book The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (Pan 2014) untangles this almighty mess with bravura and wit.

When Zeno died in 491, the mob in Constantinople called for a proper Roman emperor rather than accept Zeno’s brother Longinus (who had been consul in 486), so the dowager empress Ariadne provided them with Anastasius, one of her former silentarii (senatorial rank officials). He led the empire into a war with the Isaurians.

We have been able to see that it was not forbidden for a ‘barbarian’ to become emperor. Most of the emperors after Commodus were from outlandish backgrounds, probably because they were better fighters. Nearly all of the commanders who became kings were culturally Christians and legally Romans.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Neither Useful Nor Honourable: the End of Roman Gaul

In AD475, four men sat in a room in Arles and destroyed the Roman Empire.

It was probably summer, and the four men were probably accompanied by others. They met with a representative of the Visigothic king, Euric, so it was very likely to have been in summer. But despite all the others in the room, they were the ones charged by the western emperor, Julius Nepos, with the negotiations he instructed them to undertake.

The four men were all bishops: Leontius was bishop of Arles, and as a friend of Pope Hilary, had established his see as the leading one of Gaul. Then there was Basilius of Aix, Graecus of Marseille and Faustus of Riez, the Briton considered the foremost Christian writer of his day. The men they met were not Visigoths by background; they were Roman officials who had changed sides to save their own hides. In Euric’s delegation, perhaps leading it, would have been Victorius, who Euric made Duke of Aquitania Prima in 479. He may have been, or been related to, another Victorius of Aquitaine, a contemporary intellectual and mathematician.

A year before, Euric’s troops had occupied Provence. Julius Nepos wanted it back. The negotiation with Euric’s men was to determine what price might be needed. They would have had in their minds the Battle of Arles in 458, in which the Visigothic king Theodoric, elder brother of Euric, had been massively defeated by the Romans under Majorian. Now Euric (who had overthrown his brother) had broken the pact (foedus) which governed de facto Visigothic rule in southern Gaul.

Euric promised the Romans could have Provence back, if he could have the Auvergne (Arvernia). The bishops agreed to this on behalf of the emperor. With Roman connivance, Euric invaded the Auvergne and took it in 475. Then he invaded Provence again and seized that in 476. The loss of Gaul was a catastrophe, and Odoacer used this to depose the boy emperor Romulus Augustulus and seize power.

Arles had become the capital of Gaul in the early fifth century, when Trier, an imperial capital a mere twenty five years earlier, was abruptly abandoned. Leontius would have had in his mind the substantial fees and earnings Arles received because of the Elisii Campi (Elysian Fields), now known as the Alyscamps. This was a highly fashionable burial ground, so popular that people were ferried across the Mediterranean from North Africa to be interred there. Even the guild of Rhone bargemen made a small fortune ferrying the dead of the empire to the must-have funeral they aspired to. They had to be stacked three deep to be accommodated there.

Around the table, next to Leontius no doubt, was Faustus of Riez. He was the leading clergyman of his day for theology. He was aged about 48 and British, and travelled back to Britain from time to time, testing the still widespread belief that his homeland was being devastated by the Anglo-Saxons. Faustus was quite probably the son of the British king we call Vortigern. The Historia Britonnum refers to St Germanus of Auxerre returning from Britain to Gaul with an illegitimate and allegedly incestuous son of Vortigern called Faustus (‘Lucky’) to make the boy a priest, and the ages match. In addition, Faustus of Riez was known as a ‘semi-Pelagian’, one holding  a modified version of the teachings of Pelagius, a Briton condemned as a heretic a generation back. Germanus had travelled to Britain to resolve a dispute between the teachings of the Church and the popular philosophy of Pelagius.

Basilius of Aix must have been a young man, because he was still bishop in AD500, when he caused to be built a spanking new cathedral, on top of the Forum, which survived for centuries until being destroyed in Saracen raids. But we can imagine the young bishop (not so uncommon, as life expectancy was quite low) thinking about how he might be able to remodel his city for the glory of God, and perhaps himself. The baptistery of Aix cathedral was built over a temple to Apollo and survives to this day. His name suggests he might have been of Greek ancestry, but there were other Greek settlements along the coast.

Graecus of Marseille sounds like he ought to be of Greek ancestry, but since Marseille was so Greek, the name holds no distinction. Perhaps it was a nickname which became his church name. He was an older man, and had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. Faustus had rebuked him harshly for espousing Nestorianism, a Christian sect that became a heresy (Ralph Mathiesen Ruricius of Limoges and Friends: A collection of letters from Visigothic Gaul, Liverpool University Press, 1999). So in that room in Arles, there would have been little love lost between Faustus and Graecus.

We should pause for a moment to consider what these four men had done: they had handed fellow Romans, who had managed to hold the Visigoths at bay, over to the enemy. They had in doing so betrayed their friend and fellow bishop, Sidonius Apollinaris. They had failed to see that Euric had already conquered Provence once, and knew how to do it again.

Once he had taken Arvernia and its capital Arvernis (formerly Augustonemetum and from the 9th century Claremontum (now Clermont-Ferrand)), and taken Sidonius prisoner, transporting him in chains to Liviana, near Carcasso (modern Carcassonne), then to Bordeaux, putting him in prison there for some time, Euric almost surrounded Provence, enabling him to take it anyway.

Sidonius wrote letters, and eventually published nine books of them, in emulation of Pliny the Younger (all translations derived from O.M. Dalton, 1915 Loeb edition). If he imagined there would be a tenth book compiled by his admirers, that never occurred, although several people tried to engage him in writing the history of his times.

But Letter 7.7 to Graecus of Marseille is the bitter gall of a man who has been betrayed by his friends. It came after a siege of the Auvergne for four years (471-5) by the Visigoths. Clermont was his wife’s home town, but he had adopted its defence as his life’s cause.

Letter 7.7 is quietly furious at the betrayal: ‘Our enslavement is the price paid for the safety of others’ he says, adding that he now finds himself ‘amidst an unconquerable, yet alien people’ . Sidonius knew that Vercingetorix had been king of the Arveni facing Caesar and echoes Lucan’s Pharsalia in condemning ‘the servitude of the Arvernians who dared once to call themselves “brothers of Latium” and counted themselves “a people sprung from Trojan blood”’.

The sense of betrayal Sidonius expresses is keen: ‘you are the channel through which embassies come and go; to you first of all, although the emperor is absent, peace is not only reported when negotiated, but entrusted to be negotiated’ , adding later ‘you are surrounded by those most holy pontiffs, Leontius, Faustus, and Graecus; you have a middle place among them in the location of your city and in seniority, and you are the centre of their loving circle; you four are the channels through which the unfortunate treaties flow; through your hands pass the compacts and stipulations of both realms’.

Sidonius sums up his condemnation with these words: ‘You should be ashamed of this peace treaty for it is neither useful nor honourable’.

So who was Sidonius?

Sidonius Apollinaris was born  in Lyon on 5 November 430; he came from a rich family with a long history of public office. His grandfather Apollinaris was praetorian prefect of Gaul  for part of AD408, replacing a certain Limenius, but had quit in protest at the corruption of politics. In one of his letters, Sidonius talks of visiting his grandfather’s grave, which was neglected and overgrown, and mourned this; but his grandfather had been a rebel, prefect for Constantine III, so maybe somebody held a grudge.

The father of Sidonius was also Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls, as was Tonantius Ferreolus, a kinsman, related to Sidonius by blood and marriage. The father in law of Sidonius, Marcus Avitus, was Prefect in 439 and the father of Avitus, Flavius Julius Agricola, had been Prefect in 416 ­– 421. Marcus Avitus, the candidate of the Visigoths, was acclaimed emperor by their king Theodoric in Toulouse, the Visigothic capital, 455 after the assassination of Valentinian III. Sidonius wrote a panegyric to his own father in law on his elevation. He grew up and lived within the nexus of power.

With the coming of Christianity into the power structures of the Roman Empire, a new channel was opened for status and display. Bishops were elected by their parishioners and for life; decurions were expressly forbidden to enter the Church, but several time, so the law must have been quite ineffective. Constantine had given bishops the power to run courts and dispense summary justice. And while bishops were forbidden to marry, there has never been a law preventing a married man becoming a bishop. Sidonius had sons and daughters too. A middle aged bishop with grown up sons to effectively inherit episcopal power was far from unusual.

Had Avitus held the throne for any time, he might well have made Sidonius Prefect of Gaul. However Avitus, once the richest man in Gaul, was deposed as emperor, but then made Bishop of Placentia (modern Piacenza). Although that didn’t stop Avitus being murdered, it does show that becoming a bishop was an alternative route to power.

Forgiven his connection to Avitus, Sidonius rose again to become Urban Prefect of Rome, a position he had to resign from because his friend Arvandus was found guilty of treason for supporting the Visigothic king Euric. The epitaph of Sidonius, discovered recently, stresses his civic roles

noble through his titles, powerful through his office, head of the administration, magistrate at the court, quiet amid the world's billowing waves, then managing the turmoil of lawsuits, he imposed laws on the barbarian fury; for the realms that were involved in an armed conflict he restored peace by his great prudence.

His death is noted at ‘August 22, under the reign of Zeno’, as if the Roman Empire still existed at that time. By that date in AD489, there had been no western emperor for thirteen years. Note it stresses his public role, not his clerical one.

Making ex-leaders into bishops was a kind of exile. Once tonsured as priests, they could not in theory return to civilian life. Julius Nepos, once dethroned, was made Bishop of Salona, the capital of Dalmatia, the former province, which he had ruled for a long time before briefly becoming emperor. All of this can be dated back to St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who had been the local provincial governor before that.

Sidonius also attacks (Ep.7.6, to Basilius, dated 474) the damage to the Church:

Diocese and parish lie waste without ministers. You may see the rotten roofs of churches fallen in, the doors unhinged and blocked by growing brambles. More grievous still, you may see the cattle not only lying in the half-ruined porticoes, but grazing beside altars green with weeds. And this desolation is not found in country parishes alone; even the congregations of urban churches begin to fall away.

Noting that ‘Bordeaux, Périgueux, Rodez, Limoges, Javols, Eauze, Bazas, Comminges, Auch, and many another city are all like bodies which have lost their heads through the death of their respective bishops. No successors have been appointed to fill their places’ and that ‘for every bishop snatched from our midst, the faith of a population is imperilled. I need not mention your colleagues Crocus and Simplicius, removed alike from their thrones and suffering a common exile’. He ends the letter

To you these miserable treaties are submitted, the pacts and agreements of two kingdoms pass through your hands. Do your best, as far as the royal condescension suffers you, to obtain for our bishops the right of ordination in those parts of Gaul now included within the Gothic boundaries, that if we cannot keep them by treaty for the Roman State, we may at least hold them by religion for the Roman Church.

This shows a change in perception from Rome as state to Roman as the body of the faithful. In Ireland at about the same time, St Patrick was telling the soldiers of the king of Strathclyde ‘you are not Romans but demons’, when they were never politically Romans in the first place.

Sidonius adds a comment about the successes of Euric:

I must confess that formidable as the mighty Goth may be, I dread him less as the assailant of our walls than as the subverter of our Christian laws. They say that the mere mention of the name of Catholic so embitters his countenance and heart that one might take him for the chief priest of his Arian sect rather than for the monarch of his nation. Omnipotent in arms, keen-witted, and in the full vigour of life, he yet makes this single mistake – he attributes his success in his designs and enterprises to the orthodoxy of his belief, whereas the real cause lies in mere earthly fortune.

The thinking behind this comment is that of Orosius: the victories of the enemy cannot be because God favours them, but because of simple numbers and main force. It should be noted that Arians called themselves Catholics; Sidonius is engaging in a little rhetoric here.

In a letter (Ep. 7.1, dated 474) to Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, Sidonius refers to

earthquake, shattering the outer palace walls with frequent shocks; now fire, piling mounds of glowing ash upon proud houses fallen in ruin; now, amazing spectacle! wild deer grown ominously tame, making their lairs in the very forum. You saw the city being emptied of its inhabitants, rich and poor taking to flight.

The earthquake of September 470 is recorded by Gregory of Tours, quoting the now lost Chronicle of Angers (Historiae 2.18,19). Mamertus invented Church Rogations, still practised today; by doing so, he encouraged the panicked people of Vienne to return to the city. The bishop remaining in his city seems to have been crucial to that city’s survival. If a bishop left it and settled his see elsewhere, the former see tended to collapse and the latter to survive. In addition, where no replacement bishop could be appointed after a bishop died or was exiled, there were sometimes too few bishops left to ordain another, something which Sidonius alludes to in his letter (Ep.7.5, dated 472) to Agroeclus, bishop of Sens, a famous grammarian, where he says ‘Clermont is the last of all the cities in Aquitanica Prima which the fortune of war has left to Rome; the number of provincial bishops is therefore inadequate to the election of a new prelate at Bourges, unless we have the support of the metropolitans’.

Sidonius ends Letter 7.7 with unerring bitterness:

I ask your pardon for telling you hard truths; my distress must take all colour of abuse from what I say. You think too little of the general good; when you meet in council, you are less concerned to relieve public perils than to advance private fortunes. By the long repetition of such acts you begin to be regarded as the last instead of the first among your fellow provincials.
But how long are these feats of yours to last? Our ancestors will cease to glory in the name of Rome if they have no longer descendants to bear their memory. Oh, break this infamous peace at any cost; there are pretexts enough to your hand. We are ready, if needs must, to continue the struggle and to undergo more sieges and starvations. But if we are to be betrayed, we whom force failed to conquer, we shall know beyond a doubt that a barbarous and cowardly transaction was inspired by you. … The other conquered regions have only servitude to expect; Auvergne must prepare for punishment. If you can hold out no help in our extremity, seek to obtain of Heaven by your unceasing prayers that though our liberty be doomed, our race at least may live. Provide land for the exile, prepare a ransom for the captive, make provision for the emigrant. If our own walls must offer an open breach to the enemy, let yours be never shut against your friends.

That the Auvergne was singled out for punishment does bring to mind the famous practice of the pharmakos of Marseille, where someone was singled out as a scapegoat for all society’s ills, kept apart and eventually killed. Letter 7.7 was written to Graecus of Marseille, a bishop who must have been aware of the ancient practice, and I think Sidonius is hinting at it to make Graecus squirm.

We are beginning to see a picture of former imperial officials starting to become rulers of new semi-autonomous states: Syagrius in what became Neustria, Julius Nepos in Dalmatia, Theodoric in Acquitaine, Childeric, father of Clovis, in Belgica Secunda, under the guidance of St Remigius (and portrayed in Roman uniform on his seal ring) and Sidonius in the Auvergne. As the former urban prefect of Rome, Sidonius became de facto the ruler of the Auvergne.

We should end as Sidonius ended Book 7 of his letters (Ep.7.18 to Constantius of Lyon, the author of the Vita of St Germanus of Auxerre, dated 479):

while Christ is my defender I will never suffer my judgement to be enslaved; I know as well as any one that with regard to this side of my character there are two opinions: the timid call me rash, the resolute a lover of freedom; I myself strongly feel that the man who has to hide his real opinions cuts a very abject figure.


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Tales of the Riverbank: Severinus and Rome's Fall

The very edge of the Roman Empire; the people are being pushed out or taken captive by invaders; the remaining soldiers are fading away; a hero is needed to lead the people to fight back and win. A man appears as if from nowhere and does just that.

Does that sound a bit like King Arthur? Quite a bit, I’d say. But this was not post-Roman Britain, but almost-post-Roman Austria. This border was not Hadrian’s Wall, but the river Danube. And the hero was not Arthur, but Severinus, a mysterious holy man, later regarded as a saint.

We have a detailed biography of him by Eugippius, a monk who knew him well, the Vita Sancti Severini (henceforth just Vita), together with a letter from Eugippius to a deacon called Paschasius in AD511, and Paschasius’ reply. There is also a reference to Severinus and some of the events of that time in the work now known as the Anonymous Valesianus and the Vita Sancti Antonii Eremitici, a Life of St Antony the Hermit, who had lived and worked alongside Severinus. Severinus also features in the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, a Lombard contemporary of Charlemagne. There is also a modern discussion in Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (OUP, 2005).

Saints’ Lives were the principal form of literature in Europe and the Near East in late Antiquity. They were written for a growing monastic readership. The Rule of St Benedict requires a young monk with a good voice to read improving literature to the monks at dinner time (Rule, Ch.38) Benedict’s Rule was written at Monte Cassino between 528 and 543. Saints’ Lives that already existed were ready made for Chapter 38.

Severinus appeared, as if from nowhere in the 450s, to minister and run the towns along the south bank of the Danube in the Roman province of Noricum Ripense in what is now the panhandle of western Austria.

Austrian schilling coin of 1982 depicting St Severinus

What we witness through the Vita is the disintegration of a province in the middle of the fifth century. And Noricum Ripense was part of the prefecture of Italy, close enough to make the Italians notice. Yet it turns on many dubious points.

The appearance of Severinus at just the right time reminds me of nothing more that the role of The Stranger played by Clint Eastwood in my favourite western High Plains Drifter (1973); if Eugippius had not known him personally (a standard trope of vitae is personal attestation that however clichéd the miracles are, they really happened), you would consider it more like a classical myth.

The Noricans played little part in defending their own province. Local place names reflect this: Batavis (modern Passau), Asturis, Commagenis. These reflect the places established alongside the Danube by and for soldiers recruited from the Batavi (in the Netherlands), the Asturians (in north west Spain) and the men of Commagene (possibly Isaurians) in Asia Minor. These were clearly military forts.

It is hard to know where the ‘barbarians’ were located. At Commagenis they were within the walled town as protectors, and rushed out when an earthquake struck (Vita 2); in other locations they were invaders.

And who exactly were the locals? When Noricum asked to join the Roman Empire, what is now southern Germany was part of the Celtic world.  We can tell by the detailed place names given by Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios map data, which are full of names ending in the classic Gaulish –acum and -dunum (Lacus Curtius has modern renditions of these maps). So the area north of the Danube was not yet Germanic in c.150. The names of Batavis and other places suggests that auxiliaries were settled upon discharge near where they had served. Only Lauriacum, with its Gaulish name (modern Lorch)  seems to have been a metropolis for the remaining Noricans.

Noricum was well known for its iron mines, which are mentioned in Rutilius Namantianus De Reditu Suo, book 1, where they are compared with those of Elba and Sardinia. Perhaps that was what made the area desirable for the Germanic peoples (had they worked as guards there?) and worth the Romans defending. Legion II Italica Pia was established in Lauriacum by Marcus Aurelius in c.180, and these may be the few who remained to defend Noricum in the fifth century. The Vita contains this moving account of the last soldiers:

So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troop at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way. One day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river. (Vita Ch.20)

The border wall was the Roman limites, which ran from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Around Lauricum, the system switches from the Upper Germanic limes to the Raetian limes. Was there a weakness either in physical structure or in the chain of command, as might have been known by some Germanic peoples who had served with the Roman army? 

Reconstruction of the Danubian limes, 19th century
Eugippius tells us about the frozen Danube affording movement of people: ‘A well-known proof of the terrible cold is afforded by the Danube, which is often so solidly frozen by the fierce frost that it affords a secure crossing even for carts’ (Vita 4). This matches the comment of Jordanes that the Danube ‘freezes so hard that it will support like a solid rock an army of infantry, and carts and sleds’ (Getica 55). I suspect that this is the origin of the story often told as if fact about the barbarian invasion of New Year’s Eve 406 crossing the frozen Rhine near Strasbourg. The Danube froze at Vienna in January 1901 according to Eugippius’s translator in 1914. Our source for the crossing of the Rhine on that date is Prosper Tiro of Aquitaine, whose detailed Chronicle does not mention it being frozen then. It may be as late as Gibbon, but what Gibbon took as a surmise (‘On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen, they entered without opposition the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’ Ch.30) has been relayed as a fact by later historians.

A comment is also made by Herodian that ‘The Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Pannonia are the largest of the northern rivers. In summer their depth and width make them easily navigable, but in the cold winters they freeze over and appear like a level plain which can be crossed on horseback. The river becomes so firm and solid in that season that it supports horses and men’ (Herodian Roman History 6.7); this is a description of a battle by Maximinus Thrax at Sirmium in AD236.

An icebound Danube also features in references to a famine at the town of Favianis. However it seems that the cause of the famine was a local magnate ‘a certain widow, Procula by name, had concealed much produce of the fields’ (Vita 3). Severinus is said to have publicly berated her for hoarding the corn, presumably for power and profit. By forcing her to release her store, Severinus ended the famine.

Not long after, there unexpectedly appeared at the bank of the Danube a vast number of boats from the Raetias, laden with great quantities of merchandise, which had been hindered for many days by the thick ice of the river Aenus. When at last God's command had loosed the ice, they brought down an abundance of food to the famine-stricken. Then all began to praise God with uninterrupted devotion, as the bestower of unhoped relief; for they had expected to perish, wasted by the long famine, and they acknowledged that manifestly the boats had come out of due season, loosed from the ice and frost by the prayers of the servant of God (Vita 3).

This was coming from Raetia (Switzerland) and had floated downstream, but been blocked off by ice floes from the river Aenus (the Inn, as in Innsbruck). This does show that the movement of food and supplies continued. How this had happened is hard to tell, but it looks more like commerce than the prayers of the stricken. Later we read of oil reaching Noricum Ripense ‘a commodity which in those places was brought to market only after a most difficult transport by traders’ (Vita 28). One of his acolytes, Maximus, arranged for a collection of donated clothes to be transported 200 miles across the Alps in winter to the Danube, having hired local men to fetch it on their backs (Vita 29), allegedly guided by a non-hibernating bear. Timing is all; the icebound river presumably prevented fishing, which would normally have prevented famine.

The frozen Danube in a recent picture
The Vita contains several elements found elsewhere in later hagiography. The enemy are always furious, always angry with the Romans and always keen on killing them. The enemy are implicated here in the death of the two soldiers mentioned above. Likewise two men are captured by the enemy less than two miles from the city walls of Favianis, having been warned off from going to collect fruit from the orchards (Vita 20). Similarly, we are told that ‘Hunimund, accompanied by a few barbarians, attacked the town of Batavis, as the saint had foretold, and, while almost all the inhabitants were occupied in the harvest, put to death forty men of the town who had remained for a guard’ (Vita 22).

Later we are told that the Heruli attacked Ioviaco (Salzburg) ‘That night the Heruli made a sudden, unexpected onslaught, sacked the town, and led most of the people into captivity. They hanged the priest Maximianus on a cross’ (Vita 24). The ‘enemy’ also sought to scale the walls of Lauriacum, but because nearly all livestock had been herded within the walls seized cattle left outside and went away, abandoning their scaling ladders (Vita 30).

There seems to be a considerable confusion just who the inhabitants of Noricum Ripense were facing. They seem to have the Heruli, the Alamanni, the Rugii and the Thuringi attacking them at different times. The saint’s response seems to have been to abandon the towns after a little resistance. It is worth quoting in full Chapter 27:

At the same time the inhabitants of the town of Quintanis, exhausted by the incessant incursions of the Alamanni, left their own abodes and removed to the town of Batavis. But their place of refuge did not remain hidden from the Alamanni: wherefore the barbarians were the more inflamed, believing that they might pillage the peoples of two towns in one attack. But Saint Severinus applied himself vigorously to prayer, and encouraged the Romans in manifold ways by examples of salvation. He foretold that the present foes should indeed by God's aid be overcome; but that after the victory those who despised his admonitions should perish. Therefore the Romans in a body, strengthened by the prediction of the saint, and in the hope of the promised victory, drew up against the Alamanni in order of battle, fortified less with material arms than by the prayers of the saint. The Alamanni were overthrown in the conflict and fled. The man of God addressed the victors as follows. "Children, do not attribute the glory of the present conflict to your own strength. Know that ye are now set free through the protection of God to the end that ye may depart hence within a little space of time, granted you as a kind of armistice. So gather together and go down with me to the town of Lauriacum." The man of God impressed these things upon them from the fullness of his piety. But when the people of Batavis hesitated to leave their native soil, he added, "Although that town also, whither we go, must be abandoned as speedily as possible before the inrushing barbarism, yet let us now in like manner depart from this place."

As he impressed such things upon their minds, most of the people followed him. A few indeed proved stubborn, nor did the scorners escape the hostile sword. For that same week the Thuringi stormed the town; and of those who notwithstanding the prohibition of the man of God remained there, a part were butchered, the rest led off into captivity and made to pay the penalty for their scorn.

In short, the people of Quintanis moved to Batavis, and when that was sacked, they went to Lauriacum, with a view to a withdrawal to Italy. Both the Alamanni and Thuringi were involved at different times.

Noricum Ripense was, as mentioned above part of the Prefecture of Italy. The Prefect at that time seems to have been Caecina Decius Basilius, a high born Italian noble, who later was made Consul and who had three sons who also made both Prefect and Consul under Odoacer. His sole objective seems to have been to suck up to whoever was ruler at the time. He clearly failed to maintain adequate communication with the Danube. The last Prefect before Odoacer was Felix Himelco, a man one assumes of Punic ancestry.

Relations with Germanic neighbours was not always bad, as Chapter 14 tells us how Gibuldus the local king of the Alamanni came secretly to Batavis and negotiated with Severinus and arranged for many prisoners to be freed and returned home. Interestingly, Amantius, a local priest, sent letters to Gibuldus and received several from him, suggesting either the king was literate or had staff who were. Perhaps the king was a former Roman soldier.

One of the groups most closely involved with Noricum were the Rugii. They had once lived on the Baltic island of Rugen, but had morphed into a warband, which means they were probably around 150 strong. Now 150 armed men can do a lot of damage, but they are not the overwhelming numbers people often talk about. This is Dunbar’s Number, the maximum number of people one individualcan know properly, and thus command. The Roman First Century of the primus pilus had a full strength of 160. As mentioned above, in Commagenis, the Germans were local defenders, while at Batavis, they were few enough in numbers to catch local men in orchards Sometimes, even in winter, it was safe enough to transport supplies down the Danube despite ice. The toughest of all warriors was General Winter.

In some instances the Rugii were voluntarily protecting the Romans against fellow Germans. Feba, the Rugian leader, probably a kinsman of King Odoacer, offered to protect the locals and this was accepted (Vita 31).

We have some clue to who Severinus was. When he died in AD482, he was conveyed to Naples, where a rich woman called Barbaria built a mausoleum for him in a castle. She had corresponded with Severinus, which suggests a postal service of some sort still existed. This suggests that Barbaria was some form of kinswoman (Vita 46).

Severinus is credited both in the Vita and the Anonymous Valesianus with having met Odoacer long before he became king of Italy and, like all good saints to have predicted Odoacer’s rule. After Severinus’ death, the Rugii seem to have fallen into a disputed succession between Feba’s brother and his son and for attacks on the Roman towns, which required Odoacer to send in a full army, and then, via his brother Onoulph, also a Roman general, and a comes called Pierus, to order the evacuation of all remaining Romans to Italy (Vita 44).

Those who would prefer to see the end of the Roman empire as the peaceful accommodation of a handful of almost-Roman soldiers will be disappointed. The terminology in French and German is educational: Les invasions barbares versus die Völkerwanderungen (wanderings of the people). Germans might easily be on all sides of what clearly could be a major struggle and people who considered themselves Roman could either settle down under new masters or be evacuated to Italy. Either way, nothing remained quite the same.